It’s time to end the great interleague experiment.
When it was first introduced in 1997, the prospect of games between National and American League teams was novel and exciting. Now, all these years later, it’s banal and meaningless.
While many steadfast opponents struggle to see any good in the format, my stance has gradually shifted, from advocate to agnostic to adversary. At first, interleague play held a certain mystique, with the ability to provide matchups from heaven. In 2003, for instance, the Yankees played at Wrigley Field for the first time since 1938, when Lou Gehrig faced the Cubs in his final World Series. That set, in which Roger Clemens sought his 300th win, inspired hype of October proportions, and it still has the power to enthral watching the games back over a decade later. Interleague play worked in that guise, in those short and calculated bursts. But that time has long gone, and changes to the format have diluted our enjoyment.
Between 2002 and 2012, interleague play was typically restricted to particular weeks on the schedule, usually just before the All-Star Game. Each season, 252 games were played between teams from rival circuits, which felt like too much but was far more palatable than the current situation. Since 2013, when the Astros moved to the American League to put five teams in each Major League division, there have been 300 interleague games per season. The phenomenon, once considered an experiment and then a delicacy, is now an everyday occurrence, due to the uneven number of teams in each league. Where once we’d look forward to the occasional meeting of powerhouses like the Dodgers and Red Sox, we’re now dreading the daily grind of Giants-Rays and Padres-Orioles, matchups that have no historical nuance nor aesthetic allure.
There’s little fun in interleague play any more, and casual fans just don’t feel compelled to watch any more than they usually would. In 2015, attendance for interleague games was just 4.2% higher than that for normal games. That may seem significant, but, on a game-by-game basis, the difference is barely perceptible.
Sure, there’s some intrigue to crosstown rivalries, such as Yankees-Mets, Dodgers-Angels and Cubs-White Sox, but even those games have lost some gravitas in recent years. They feel somehow contrived and are shoehorned awkwardly into the schedule, which has become too complex in itself. Instead of tampering and attempting to concoct rivalries, Major League Baseball should simplify its approach and let them sprout organically. We should return to the basics of what made this game great.
My plan to eradicate interleague play would be just one part of wide-ranging reform to the structure and format of big league ball. Firstly, I would end divisional play and return to the traditional setup of two leagues of fourteen teams. Next, the schedule would be rebalanced, with each team playing all of the others in their league twelve times a season, giving us a 156-game schedule, down from 162.
One obvious problem here would be travel, which would be especially difficult for the Seattle Mariners, located far away from the main bulk of Major League activity. There is never going to be a perfect solution to this quandary, but the present system is also riddled with flaws. For instance, the Yankees recently travelled to Colorado for a two-game series, before returning home, where they’ll host the Rockies again this weekend. Judging by that, and several other instances that have arose throughout the season, little consideration is given to time zones when creating the schedule as presently comprised.
Nevertheless, to soften the travel burden on Seattle, I would propose expansion to sixteen teams in both leagues, with the Montreal Expos returning in the NL and an AL team perhaps being established in Portland. Teams could play ten games against each other, with five-game series’ ensuring a balance of home and away games, resulting in a 150-game season. That number is less than ideal in a historical sense, with players having less time in which to break records, and the owners will likely balk at forfeiting the revenue of six home games, but it may work better for players who are at breaking point with the chaotic schedule currently in place.
I believe that abolishing divisional play and reverting to two leagues would create a fairer playoff system and, by extension, more enthralling pennant races. The postseason format need not be changed; a seeding system could be used to order three automatic qualifiers to the postseason, with the fourth and fifth-place teams then competing in the Wildcard round.
Last year, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished with the second-best record in baseball, but they only had a loss in the Wildcard game to show for it. While exceedingly rare, that devilish scenario, that quirk of divisional alignment, would be exterminated under my plans. Similarly, a balanced schedule would give teams a fairer chance of playing their immediate pennant race rivals late in the season, which currently isn’t the case due to the density of inter-division games in September.
Of course, every system has flaws, and mine would be no different. There would be less games between ancient rivals, such as Red Sox-Yankees, Cubs-Cardinals and Giants-Dodgers, for instance. But is that necessarily a bad thing? Familiarity can breed contempt, and those games have become slightly oversaturated in recent years. Perhaps if they met less, those rivalries would actually become more intense, as fans look forward to the next meeting with genuine excitement rather than gearing up for another weekend set in just a few days’ time.
Moreover, the crosstown rivalries would be even more captivating if they happened solely on the biggest stage of all, the Fall Classic. A lack of interleague play would restore some lustre to the World Series and, to a lesser extent, the All-Star Game. There would be more natural excitement if teams from the different leagues could only meet in October. It would hearken back to that beautiful time when the World Series was the pinnacle of North American sports, when the crowds were enormous and the interest incalculable. Expecting a return to those heights would be folly, but restoring some of the traditions on which this game was built should enrich the experience for fans. Returning to two single leagues and eliminating interleague play would burnish baseball’s unique selling point: it’s intoxicating history. There would be an old-time feel to the proposed format, and that can only help baseball affirm an authentic identity, so missing in the other major sports.
Back to the future
Right now, the difference between American and National Leagues is negligible at best. Aside from the designated hitter, the circuits are essentially identical. League offices have been centralised under the Commissioner’s power, and much of the pride in a particular brand of baseball has been lost. Part of that is the money washing about our modern game, enticing players to move teams, but a lot of it can be attributed to an overbearing amount of interleague play. Realigning, balancing the schedule, and removing cross-league contests in the regular season would strengthen those unique identities, which will in turn create more interest for fans, teams and players alike.
There is obviously a risk that the new format could become boring, as teams play only a restricted pool of opponents, but at least there would be greater organisation and fairness. If regular season repetition is the price for restoring the World Series to glory and respecting the traditions of baseball, I’m happy with that. The current system isn’t working, in terms of sparking fan interest, so let’s try something else.
Baseball has an engrossing history. More than any other sport, it relies on its past for guidance and meaning. Much of that tradition has been lost, with artificial turf and instant replay and television changing the game forever, but there are still ways to capture the essence that once made baseball so dominant. One such way is to embrace the spirit of possible changes outlined here, and return to the fundamentals.
Perhaps to go forward, baseball should first look back. Make this game simpler to follow, easier to enjoy, and give fans reason to invest their time and passion dreaming about its possibilities. Interleague play should be shelved. Divisions should be abandoned. The best teams should be rewarded.
There are a lot of barriers, and the likelihood is that nothing will change. However, as the new Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated following this season, there is a tremendous opportunity to take baseball in a different direction. Rob Manfred seems pretty receptive to changing elements of the game, and this is one of the areas I would like to see him focus on. Whether the players’ union would cooperate is another story, but we must try to salvage what remains of baseball’s soul.